Today’s New York Times features a front-page story on the 30 illegal private schools for migrant children that have been torn down this summer in Beijing. Roughly 1/3 of Beijing’s 19.6 million residents are migrants – mostly from the countryside. They work in construction, recycling and trash collecting, domestic service (i.e. ‘nannies’), street markets, restaurants, and just about any other ‘service’ job that makes Chinese urban life livable, not to mention providing cheap labor for China’s booming export-economy. Because of household registration restrictions (China’s hukou system), migrant children are not eligible for free education in Beijing, and so if parents want their children to go to school they usually enroll them in a private ‘migrant school’. There are about 160 of these schools in Beijing. The story quotes my PhD advisor, Kam Wing Chan (University of Washington), on the contradictory relationship between China’s urban middle class and migrant workers from the countryside: “The middle class hates to see that kind of poverty, but they can’t live without their cheap labor.” He goes on to say that in the next 15 years, some 250 million migrants are expected to move to the cities. If they continue to live with second-class citizenship, the potential for social unrest will only increase.
For a great film on the Chinese migrant experience, see Last Train Home, by Fan Lixin (2009). We’ll explore the hukou system and labor migration in China more thoroughly on October 11th and November 15th. The New York Times article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/world/asia/30china.html